Getting the scale right: attitudes before systems.

After millennia of battle the surviving G’Gugvuntt and Vl’hurg realised what had actually happened, and joined forces to attack the Milky Way in retaliation. They crossed vast reaches of space in a journey lasting thousands of years before reaching their target where they attacked the first planet they encountered, Earth. Due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was swallowed by a small dog.

Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I love this Hitch-hiker’s Guide story. How often do we misjudge the relative impact of different actions or the level of effort involved compared to the outcomes?   It happens with money all the time:  Fretting over spending £10 instead of £6.99 on a bottle of wine… while your £45 direct debit membership for the gym you never go to goes out each month; fussing about whether to spend £500 on staff food on an INSET day but being sloppy about chasing down extra Sixth Form recruits at a cost of £4K each; getting angry with the Government for spending £1million on a public inquiry but not getting so bothered about £billions of tax not collected from high earners and corporations. In education, there are lots of fleets being swallowed by dogs; situations where we often misjudge the scale: Here is my top three:

1. Curriculum Planning and Timetabling

Short-term accountability pressures force us to be diverted from thinking about the heart of our business:  the quality of teacher-student relationships and interactions.  We may have a fleet of good intentions: teaching and learning strategies, differentiation and literacy policies; schemes of work and good resources – all lined up and ready for battle.  BUT, the whole lots gets swallowed up by the Dog of curriculum planning:  too many transitions between lessons, split classes, multiple teachers, teaching in a different room every lesson, break duty between lessons and so on. .  All that relationship-building and subtle teacher-knowledge about students can be fractured, broken up and lost by re-setting, sharing classes and endless chop and change.   I know of several schools where Y7 students have had 25+ teachers in one year; sometimes three for one subject at once – and it undermines everything else.  Sir Tim Brighouse makes good sense on this subject; we need to be careful not to lose the art of skilful management, in the rush to drive through initiatives.  We mustn’t underestimate how important it is for each student to be known; not only as an individual but as a learner.

2. Performance Management or Appraisal Systems

Here we have a fleet of policies and systems, reinforced by OfSTED and the latest accountability drive.  We have Performance Related Pay on its way and OfSTED may ask to see how teachers’ targets are set and monitored, following the paper trail.  The idea is that this kind of tough regime will arm us in the fight against underachievement and mediocre teaching….. but, wait… the scale doesn’t seem right.

I’m a pretty good teacher.   I get great results…and my school does pretty well too.  But I have a confession to make: not once, ever, ever, ever have I felt that my Performance Management targets have had the slightest bit to do with anything.  Right now, I don’t even know what my PR targets are; I’ve forgotten.  Each year, when my review comes up, I get the paperwork out to remind myself what it was that I said I should be aiming for; then I sort of bluff my way through the process and set some more for the following year.  This is a fleet of G’Gugvuntt’s heading for Earth.  Elsewhere my own personal drive and determination is the dog that will swallow the fleet. I perform well because I am motivated to do so; it is an attitude; it is something I do as a professional person with integrity; it is something that is reinforced by the culture that surrounds me.  These things are much much bigger and more powerful than whatever it says in that file.  The data targets don’t work because, all I can do is work flat out to secure the best results possible…I’m aiming high anyway, all of the time.  The teaching and learning targets don’t work either because I move on continually;  one year is a long time to focus on one idea…

Here is my radical contention: If we burned or deleted all the Performance Management files it would be a long long time before any student noticed a difference.   We need to keep it in perspective.  The point of a performance review process cannot be about accountability. If someone is failing, you can’t wait a year to sort it out; you go in straight away.  Any targets are much tighter.. and you work with someone week in, week out.  The purpose of the appraisal process is this:  to motivate a person to push themselves further; to engage with CPD,  to plan a great career, to explore new ideas.  The targets are then just a record of that snap-shot discussion to reflect on later.

The goal, therefore is to work with teachers to promote a positive, determined attitude toward self-directed challenge and self-improvement….that is the Dog; the accountability fleet has got no chance.

3. Assessment Data Overkill

“You can’t have too much data” said a colleague. Once.  “No,  you really can” I replied. 

Imagine a walk through the minutiae of the processes that lead from the production of a set of attainment data on a computer somewhere – or on the ‘war-wall’ with the 5A*-C Venn diagrams in the staffroom – through to the teacher-student interactions that follow in a classroom.   What are the circumstances where those interactions are different because of the information in the data?

I can think of a few times, when I find data useful:

  • At the start of a year: getting to know a new class by looking at their prior attainment.
  • Evaluating tests and exams: finding out where we did well and where we can improve
  • Keeping track of progress with periodic stock-takes across the year.
  • As a mentor to Y11 students, it is helpful to see mock results and interim teacher assessments.
  • At a whole-school level, assessment data can help pastoral pick out students who are excelling, coasting or struggling.

But that is all.  It isn’t that much.  However, all too often, we get the scale wrong.  Schools create vast overcomplicated data machines that slice and dice the information, factoring in 10- 15 variables and keeping track of the latest data stream in rainbow colours.  Some teachers have to do an awful lot of data entry.  But, again, let’s stop and think for a minute.  In my lessons (and many others far better than mine) my expectations come from me; the data is a blurry back-drop.  That spreadsheet with multiple columns of grades and levels…. – well, how much of that do you actually need before you go into a lesson knowing that student A needs a certain level of input and B needs something slightly different.   If you didn’t have the data but just thought about A  and B for a minute, would that be the same? Similarly if the pastoral team drew up a list of students who need intervention, based on their anecdotal knowledge base ,…how well would that match up to the list generated from the uber-tracking system? I bet it wouldn’t be far off.   What matters much more than the hard data of numbers and figures – is the teacher’s knowledge.

In terms of target-setting, what do we really gain from all the pseudo-precision and statistical jiggery-pokery?  It seems to me, we only need data to help us IF we are complacent or if we impose limits on our students’ potential.  However, if we are the ones telling them all that the sky is the limit, the targets set themselves.  No-one ever aimed for a D and felt successful – unless they exceeded it.   Our aims need to be ferociously high – and we don’t need much data to guide us; most of what is needed is attitudinal – and developing that  across a school requires a different approach altogether.

So here is the great Earth Dog vs Vl’hurg Fleet thought-experiment:  Imagine the entire data-system is wiped at your school by a rogue virus and all your mark-books are destroyed by fire.  How upset are you?  What will you do?  How much difference will it make?  How soon would you notice? Now, decide to re-create only the data sets that you actually need to influence your classroom actions and nothing more…  It wouldn’t be much.  The thing is this; if you have been doing your job well, the fire and the virus won’t have touched the thing that mattered most: your knowledge of your students.  You are the Dog; you win every time!

Conclusion to a convoluted cautionary caper:

  • Get the scale right.
  • Attitudes matter more than systems
  • Don’t let the Good Fleet be swallowed by a Bad Dog
  • OR, be the Dog yourself; don’t let the fleet of Accountability overwhelm you; just swallow it whole!



  1. I love this Tom – it makes way more sense to me than Vogon poetry! As an aspiring SL, you make it all seem like common sense. I get the sense sometimes that schools know some of these things don’t work or aren’t necessary even while we do them, but nobody wants to say so – emperor’s new clothes always in fashion!


  2. There was lots and I really reading enjoyed, (One or two points in particular rung true) I can understand your perspective on data too.

    I don’t want to challenge the perspective on data, I don’t think that was the purpose of the post, and we know that weighing the pig doesn’t make it fatter. Oh I find targets are only challenged when staff feel that they are unachievable, and yet in the best schools that is exactly what they are.

    To conclude, I applaud you and subscribe to your ceilingless aspiration. As I say to my students, nonclients to the top of the mountain and wishes that they weren’t there. But when you’re at the top of the mountain that is often the best place to spot your next challenge. Data for learning. Never just data.


  3. Teachers, as you point out here, make a significant impact on pupil achievement. Teachers need to make sure they teach pupils, not subjects. Their level of passion and inspiration makes a huge difference. The over-use of data can cause under-performance for both the teacher and the learner. The under-use of data can turn teachers into clueless experts.


  4. Speaking as a data lover, I love what data can tell you…it can really help identify ‘forgotten children’ but totally agree that too much filtering can hide the wood with too many trees. Keeping a proactive perspective is so important.
    Now, where’s that direct debit…


    • I agree about data. It is really useful – studying prior attainment, exam results, component break-downs: all sorts. But, then you need to get on with it and, once you are off, the info you need is all about nuanced formative assessment in the classroom. I think of this as ‘knowledge’ rather than ‘data’. The stock-take data then only needs to be light-touch… I’ve seen teachers show me their spreadsheet where none of it was having an impact on their lesson – it was just too much.


  5. A brilliant post. I cared not for data but for students. As a Geography teacher, there wasn’t much meaningful prior data anyway. One of my students once acheived an A* which also was a top ten in the country mark and for which Edexcel sent me a nice letter. I didnt care about her prior results, as she entered my clasroom it was my expectations and demands I cared about. After getting the letter I looked for the first time at her final KS3 level. Turns out she was slightly above average and target was a B. I’m glad I didn’t know. I might have treated her differently. Excellence, integrity, understanding, individuality and humour were what drove me on and the belief that those who listened would achieve great things.
    So many in education forget that we are dealing with human beings not commodities and that actually it is the students responsibility to do well rather than all responsibility laying with the teachers. I whole heartedly agree with the performance management comments – a bullshit exercise which wastes valuable time. The big challenge is for those in charge to understand the complexity of teaching & learning and all the other millions of variables that determine students achievement but alas it seems the blame will lie squarely with the teachers for years to come


  6. I stopped keeping any data in my class register (bar the odd half term unit test). I used to convince myself I needed it for reports etc. I Never used it, I now spend the time writing comments in the student books. On target setting, I have come to the conclusion that it is better overall to not issue any targets to students or teacher, a bold move I know, however if we direct our energies on making all teachers as good as they can be then the students will achieve the best they can.


  7. Fantastic analogies! It’s exactly what happens to my performance management paperwork each year. I’m looking forward to sharing this post with some of my colleagues who are wary of the pig weighing! Data has its place, but it’s what goes on in the classroom that’s important. We need to really know our students to make the difference.


  8. Exactly.
    Appraisal is forgotten by all a week after the early year meeting when the targets are set. I have wondered what it would be like if appraisal ran for one old term out of the year for each teacher. That would focus every ones minds more on the process and the targets.
    As for data and pupil targets, we now report to parents 6 times a year with NC levels or GCSE grades. It keeps the AHT happy and no one else. The trouble with having all this data available is that teachers, pupils and parents will switch off to all of it, even though, as you point out, there is some apposite information in there.
    Finally how good it is to read someone saying that how the teachers know their pupils is key. However, Michael Gove, OFSTED and SLT cannot measure such a thing, which means they cannot trust it and so in the present climate it will not be used. (@dukkhaboy)


  9. I was relieved to find that these is someone in a senior management position who agrees with me as the irrelevance of much of the data we “collect” and “analyse.” I also agree about performance management, which I suppose may be a useful tool in keeping a sales force motivated and on task (not that I ever needed such things when I ran a sales team outside of education), but is a ridiculously inappropriate measure in a school context.


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